We started with a plant-based burger from Impossible Foods. Founded in 2011, the company makes meat alternatives from plants. The special ingredient is heme protein, which is cranked out by genetically engineered microbes and sprinkled in for that meaty flavor. I took a small bite of the Impossible burger, and if you ask me, the taste was a pretty good approximation of the real thing, though the texture was a bit looser and softer than beef. (If you’re based in the US, you may have tried this one already yourself. In Europe, heme still hasn’t been approved by regulators, so Impossible’s products don’t include it there.)
Next on the docket was the beef burger. By the way, none of these sliders had any sort of sauces or toppings on them, and Krieger says they were seasoned identically, for a fair comparison. I truly have nothing to say about this one—it was just a plain burger. Even as I was chewing, I had my eyes on the final item on my tasting menu for the day: the lab-grown version.
The future of meat?
Ohayo Valley’s Wagyu burgers start out as a small biopsy of muscle taken from a young cow. Cells from that sample, mostly muscle cells and fibroblasts (which can transform into fat cells as a cow grows), can then be cultivated in the lab, growing and dividing over and over again. Having a mix of muscle cells, fibroblasts, and mature fat cells in the final product is key for the flavor, Krieger says.
Once the cells have proliferated enough, they’re washed with salt water to clear out the broth they’re grown in and stored in the fridge overnight. Then they can go into a burger as soon as the next day. Most of Ohayo’s work is still happening at a small lab scale, Krieger said, so altogether it took about three weeks to grow all the cells for my slider, along with four others the team planned to serve at an event later that day.
The burger on my plate was actually only about 20% lab-grown material, Krieger explained. The company’s plan is to blend its cells with a base of plant-based meat (she wouldn’t tell me much about this base, just that it’s not Ohayo’s recipe). Plants can help provide the structure for alternative meats, Krieger says. One other major benefit to this blending technique is financial: the lab-grown components are expensive, so mixing in plants can help keep costs down. My colleague Niall Firth wrote about this process of blending lab-grown and plant-based meat (and Ohayo Valley) in 2020.
The world’s first lab-grown burger, served at a conference in 2013, cost an estimated $330,000 to make. The field has come a long way since, with Singapore becoming the first country to allow commercial sales of lab-grown meat in 2020. And in November 2022, a company in the US passed one of the final hurdles from the Food and Drug Administration.